NYPIRG released a report last week of the largest donations in New York state politics over the past year. The numbers, while no longer surprising, mirror the disturbing state of campaign spending at the federal level, and they raise some important questions about the underlying institutions necessary for democratic elections and political accountability.
The report showed that 127 donors are responsible for over $16.8 million in state level political contributions. Governor Cuomo came out with $2,959,426.04, and 15 of the top 25 donations went to the NY State Senate Republican Campaign Committee at a time when Republicans are in control of the State Senate. The report also reveals that the largest portion of NY state donations came from real estate, financial, and healthcare interest groups. Even NY State’s rightly-celebrated passage of a marriage equality bill this past year is reflected, not unsurprisingly, with large contributions from wealthy supporters of same-sex marriage. With politics so dominated by a narrow subset of economic elites, we increasingly live under a system where campaign and lobbying expenses, rather than democratic elections, determine which policies are passed and who gets to remain in office.
Just as campaign finance restrictions have failed at the federal level, New York state campaign finance limits have proven utterly incapable of keeping spending in check. Contributions from single individuals to political parties are capped at $150,000, but several individuals managed to donate more by giving to party’s “housekeeping accounts.” Michael Bloomberg, for instance, gave $371,500, with $250,000 going to the NY Senate Republican Campaign Committee’s housekeeping account. Corporate money is also running rampant, and the lack of rigorous disclosure requirements makes it difficult even to trace corporate money to its original source. As the NYPIRG report stated, “businesses used corporate subsidiaries and multiple LLCs to greatly surpass their corporate $5,000 annual aggregate limit.”
The contrast between what our election system is and what a democratic system should be is nowhere clearer than when looking at the money spent to privatize prisons or to maintain a self-serving system of prison-based gerrymandering, where prisoner populations pad the size of legislative districts far from prisoner’s home residences. The NYPIRG report revealed that prison guards were one of the largest union contributors over the past year. The PAC of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, Inc. (NYSCOPBA PAC) gave $273,783.12. And that money was shared with both parties, being split between the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee and the NY State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, which, not coincidentally, are the ruling parties in their respective houses.
As Brian Mann noted, “The prison guard union has also been the largest single donor to state Senator Betty Little from Queensbury, whose district includes roughly a dozen state and Federal prisons.” Betty Little happens to be the named plaintiff in the Little v. LATFOR lawsuit seeking to reinstate a system of prison-based gerrymandering in New York. Large campaign contributions from the correctional guards offer a poignant reminder that incarcerated persons are rarely treated as real constituents. Prisoners aren’t allowed to vote and they certainly don’t make monetary contributions to the campaigns of their nominal representatives, yet they often serve as bargaining chips in the game of legislative redistricting. As Richard Richard McCormick observed, “democracy demands a kind of radical political equality.” And a system of well-financed candidates picking their constituents certainly isn’t that.